Big Ride to Big Ridge, Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the obvious place to get a wilderness fix for residents of Knoxville, Tennessee. Just a short trip down the road and you have big wilderness, wild animals, and great views -- but these great features also bring great numbers of tourists. That's why, when we had a free weekend, we decided to go and explore Big Ridge State Park. Big Ridge is an awesome short tour because of its close proximity to Knoxville (about 35 miles from downtown), the excellent roads available to ride en route, and the facilities, scenery, and attraction of the park itself.
We started the trip by following the North Knoxville Bike Route to take us from downtown and the urban world into the rural world we would be riding in for the next 24 hours. The North Route is easy to follow and is marked with arrows painted on the road to guide you.
From the end of the marked route, we quickly entered rural Tennessee, characterized by rolling country roads along farm after farm with a short, steep hill thrown in every once in a while to keep us on our toes. For many miles, House Mountain loomed over our shoulders, making it easy to orient ourselves and visually judge the distance we'd traveled.
Riding on and getting closer to the park, about 20 or so miles in, we noticed the terrain starting to change a bit. The climbs started getting a little longer, with more elevation gain. There were some tricky/rough, steep descents (e.g., Old Tazewell Pike), along with some really nice longer hills that wound up and over the ridges ... maybe two miles long at the most. We were then treated to a fast, flowing downhill on U.S. 61, with a couple of sweeping switchbacks right before we got to the park. I couldn't think of a better way to end the day's ride.
Riding into the park, we instantly noticed the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps. There are some beautiful stonework structures located throughout the park that are really cool to see. The workmanship that went into them is incredible. The fact that they are close to 80 years old, and are still solid as can be, is amazing.
There's also an old grist mill that was built in 1825 that was worth the short ride over to see.
The park has a bunch of campsites and cabins available in close proximity to Norris Lake, as well as some very well-maintained hiking trails. It's good to get to the park early so you can hike around and/or take a dip in the lake. One trail leads to and over a small dam used to keep lake levels constant.
The ride home the next day started out with a bang, since we had to tackle the roads that cross the ridges first. We chose to take a different route back, and we were greeted with a pretty hard stair-stepping climb on Macedonia Church Road. The effort was well worth it though, since every time we had a moment to take a look back, we'd get a glimpse of the valley unfolding below.
We passed a great little Amish country store on Chestnut Ridge Road, which sells homemade ice cream -- but, unfortunately, it was Sunday, so it was closed (be sure to plan ahead for that one). We got to ride through some more beautiful farmland and up some incredible forested climbs before, once again, House Mountain came into view to let us know we were getting close to home.
The route we took is shown here at bikely.com.
Tip for this adventure: The park doesn't take reservations for campsites, so get there early during busy times of the year. Hiking the Lake Trail out to Big Ridge Dam offers a great view of the lake. Most country stores are not open on Sundays.
Favorite local bike shop: Tennesse Valley Bikes in Knoxville.